Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King

dreaming-spies“Laurie R. King’s New York Times bestselling novels of suspense featuring Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, are critically acclaimed and beloved by readers for the author’s adept interplay of history and adventure. Now the intrepid duo is finally trying to take a little time for themselves—only to be swept up in a baffling case that will lead them from the idyllic panoramas of Japan to the depths of Oxford’s most revered institution.

After a lengthy case that had the couple traipsing all over India, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are on their way to California to deal with some family business that Russell has been neglecting for far too long. Along the way, they plan to break up the long voyage with a sojourn in southern Japan. The cruising steamer Thomas Carlyle is leaving Bombay, bound for Kobe. Though they’re not the vacationing types, Russell is looking forward to a change of focus—not to mention a chance to travel to a location Holmes has not visited before. The idea of the pair being on equal footing is enticing to a woman who often must race to catch up with her older, highly skilled husband.

Aboard the ship, intrigue stirs almost immediately. Holmes recognizes the famous clubman the Earl of Darley, whom he suspects of being an occasional blackmailer: not an unlikely career choice for a man richer in social connections than in pounds sterling. And then there’s the lithe, surprisingly fluent young Japanese woman who befriends Russell and quotes haiku. She agrees to tutor the couple in Japanese language and customs, but Russell can’t shake the feeling that Haruki Sato is not who she claims to be.

Once in Japan, Russell’s suspicions are confirmed in a most surprising way. From the glorious city of Tokyo to the cavernous library at Oxford, Russell and Holmes race to solve a mystery involving international extortion, espionage, and the shocking secrets that, if revealed, could spark revolution—and topple an empire.” – Publisher Summary

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are at it again in Dreaming Spies, book #13 in the mystery series by Laurie R. King. The couple’s latest adventure brings to them a visit from an old friend, causing them to revisit an episode in their lives heretofore shrouded in mystery: a three-week visit to Japan in 1924.

The novel begins in March 1925, when Russell and Holmes arrive home in Sussex to find a mysterious carved stone from Japan sitting in their garden. Shortly thereafter, Mary returns to her second home in Oxford, where she finds an old friend, Haruki Sato, waiting for her – with blood streaming down her arm:

“Mary-san. Help me.”

From this point, the story unfolds into a long flashback to 1924 as Mary recalls her experiences on the cruise ship on which she met Haruki and the following period of time that she and Holmes spent in Japan. As always, readers receive somewhat of a crash course in Japanese culture and geography – something we can depend on in these novels and something that brings them alive in our minds. After spending much time focusing on the couple’s time in Japan, the story then jumps back into the present (March 1925) where there is a surprising turn of events in a case thought to have been resolved.

While a series such as this is best enjoyed when read in order, Dreaming Spies does give new readers a brief but thorough introduction to Russell and Holmes. Longtime fans will thrill at the frequent references to cases past, and the footnotes referring to past novels in the series help to map events out for the newbies. The partnership between Russell and Holmes is a delight to observe; particularly during the very few moments when one or the other of this undemonstrative couple wears their heart on their sleeve. King, as always, combines rich historical and cultural detail, life-like characters, and spine-tingling suspense. For old fans or new readers, you cannot go wrong with Dreaming Spies.

Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King is available now at a bookseller near you!

4 stars

Source: Random House/Bantam Dell {via NetGalley}

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Review: Driving the King: A Novel by Ravi Howard

driving-the-king“A daring and brilliant new novel that explores race and class in 1950s America, witnessed through the experiences of Nat King Cole and his driver, Nat Weary
“Howard is a talent to watch.” —Washington Post Book World

The war is over, the soldiers are returning, and Nat King Cole is back in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, for a rare performance. His childhood friend, Nat Weary, plans to propose to his sweetheart, and the singer will honor their moment with a special song. But while the world has changed, segregated Jim Crow Montgomery remains the same. When a white man attacks Cole with a pipe, Weary leaps from the audience to defend him—an act that will lead to a 10-year prison sentence.

But the singer will not forget his friend and the sacrifice he. Six months before Weary is released, he receives a remarkable offer: will he be Nat King Cole’s driver and bodyguard in L.A.. It is the promise of a new life removed from the terror, violence, and degradation of Jim Crow Alabama.

Weary discovers that, while Los Angeles is far different from the deep South, it a place of discrimination, mistrust, and intolerance where a black man—even one as talented and popular as Nat King Cole—is not wholly welcome.

An indelible portrait of prejudice and promise, friendship and loyalty, Driving the King is a daring look at race and class in pre-Civil Rights America, played out in the lives of two remarkable men.” – Goodreads

In the mid-1950’s, rising star Nat King Cole traveled from Los Angeles to his home state of Alabama to play a sold-out show at a segregated theatre in Birmingham. During that show, three white men assaulted Cole onstage. In Driving the King by Ravi Howard, we are introduced to a fictional account of such an attack on Cole, and the aftermath that followed.

Nat King Cole has returned to his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama to star in a concert sure to show his former townspeople just how far he’s come. Childhood friend and recent war veteran, Nat Weary, is excited to see his old friend and to propose to his girl, Mattie, with the help of a serenade from Cole. As Weary is about to pop the question, however, he spots danger from the corner of his eye – someone is fast approaching Cole, bearing a lead pipe in his hands. Weary leaps down from the colored balcony and onto the stage to defend his friend – and because the man he fights is a white man, Weary winds up in Montgomery’s Kilby prison for the next ten years. As the time nears for Weary’s release from Kilby, he receives an offer: come to Los Angeles and be a driver and bodyguard for Cole. After years of loneliness and hard labor, anxious to escape both the Jim Crow South and the wreckage of his own past, Weary jumps at the chance to begin anew.

Weary’s narrative flows back and forth in time, opening with his and Cole’s return to Alabama in 1956 for a second chance at a concert for the people of Montgomery. As the night wears on, Weary flashes back to the fateful concert eleven years before, with the intervening years revealed in a series of flashbacks. Howard touches on many historical moments; using Weary as his guide, he weaves the man’s experiences into the heart of the beginning of the civil rights movement – most memorably, the Montgomery bus boycott, among other protests. We briefly meet such historical figures as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and even journalist Almena Lomax, founder of the Los Angeles Tribune.

While Driving the King touches the surface of the civil rights movement in the United States, at no point does it delve more deeply into the subject matter. Based on the provided book summary, I had been expecting further commentary on race/class relations during the Jim Crow Era/Civil Rights Movement time frame; that this was not so was somewhat disappointing to me.

What did shine for me were Howard’s characters and the stories behind them. This, for me, is where the magic of the novel lies. Weary’s straight-talking and always observant narrative creates a rich ground for character development and I enjoyed meeting his family and acquaintances. Hearing about his family’s taxi company, his time and friends at Kilby, his brothers and sisters, as well as former flame, when he is released, and those he meets after his new beginning in California – and of course, a close-up peek at Nat King Cole. Yes – for me, the heart of this tale was with the strong and unique men and women living during these turbulent yet hopeful times.

Driving the King: A Novel by Ravi Howard: Read it today!

3 stars

Source: Free Library of Philadelphia

 

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Review: The Kept by James Scott

the-kept“Set in rural New York state at the turn of the twentieth century, superb new talent James Scott makes his literary debut with The Kept—a propulsive novel reminiscent of the works of Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy, and Bonnie Jo Campbell, in which a mother and her young son embark on a quest to avenge a terrible and violent tragedy that has shattered their secluded family.
In the winter of 1897, a trio of killers descends upon an isolated farm in upstate New York. Midwife Elspeth Howell returns home to the carnage: her husband, and four of her children, murdered. Before she can discover her remaining son Caleb, alive and hiding in the kitchen pantry, another shot rings out over the snow-covered valley. Twelve-year-old Caleb must tend to his mother until she recovers enough for them to take to the frozen wilderness in search of the men responsible.
A scorching portrait of a merciless world — of guilt and lost innocence, atonement and retribution, resilience and sacrifice, pregnant obsession and primal adolescence — The Kept introduces an old-beyond-his-years protagonist as indelible and heartbreaking as Mattie Ross of True Grit or Jimmy Blevins of All the Pretty Horses, as well as a shape-shifting mother as enigmatic and mysterious as a character drawn by Russell Banks or Marilynne Robinson.” – Goodreads

On a cold, snowy day in Upstate New York in 1897, Elspeth Howell is returning home after months away working as a midwife in a distant town. Arriving at the family cabin, she finds her husband and four of her children have been savagely murdered, and one son – Caleb – missing. Before she can search for him, she herself is shot down and grievously injured. As Caleb creeps out from his hiding place in the pantry, he discovers his injured mother and drags her to the barn to begin nursing her back to health. As soon as Elspeth is on her feet, mother and son head off in search of the killers. They follow their trail to a town named Watersbridge, a town from Elspeth’s shady past that fills her with dread.

Elspeth holds many secrets close to her heart, more than Caleb could ever imagine, and is positive that her family’s murders are retribution for her past wrongs. As Caleb slowly learns more and more about the truth of his mother’s sins, he is torn between hate and loyalty but ultimately is focused on gaining justice for his murdered family. Elspeth, too, believes that seeing to the end of the killers is the only way she can atone for her many sins.

The Kept by James Scott is the dark and intense story of innocence lost. Scott’s eloquent and masterful writing brings to life the bleak and emotionally heavy atmosphere surrounding Elspeth and Caleb as they travel in search of their family’s killers. The serious tones of the novel are complemented by the heavy subject matter and discomfiting scenes that occur during their search. At times hard to read are the stomach-churning moments of violence, so vividly described, that the two witness with regularity.

There is not a cheery moment to be found in this novel. Be prepared for a serious and heart-breaking read. Scott weaves a tale of sin, murder, loss, revenge, and backhanded justice that will hold you in check until the final, gut-wrenching end. Go and get you some, y’all.

The Kept by James Scott: Read it today!

4 stars

Source: Lincoln City Libraries

 

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Review: The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

the-magicians-lie“Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel in which the country’s most notorious female illusionist stands accused of her husband’s murder –and she has only one night to convince a small-town policeman of her innocence.

The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear.

But when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell. Even handcuffed and alone, Arden is far from powerless—and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free… and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.” – Publisher Summary

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister is the captivating tale of a single night in 1905 during which a young performer must tell her life story to a local lawman in a desperate attempt to convince him to let her go free despite the fact that she is wanted for murder. This is truly one of the most imaginative historical fiction novels I’ve read in quite a while. Macallister clearly crafted her characters and settings with a sharp eye and meticulous research.

A particularly attractive point of this novel, for me, was the dual narrative – at times we are seeing the past as Arden/Ada experienced it, and others we are viewing the present moment from the perspective of the officer who has arrested her – and who has his own tragedies and agenda depending on this long, long, night.

I want to reveal as little of the plot as possible, but I will say that I was left with some questions after I had finished reading this novel. Not that there was necessarily any unfinished business; there simply seemed to be some decisions and actions made by Arden/Ada that belied her generally intelligent, confident, and capable nature. As I pondered this after setting the book (or shall I say, my Kindle Paperwhite) down, it occurred to me that these were simply times when her inner vulnerability had taken over and overshadowed her general common sense. This character flaw is just one example of the way Macallister breathed life into her characters.

Not to fear, y’all, The Magician’s Lie most definitely contains a beautiful romance – but not one that quite follows the path you would have expected. It is not the perfect fairy-tale romance that surrounds Arden and Clyde, not in the beginning nor toward the end. This facet of the novel was a fresh breath of air to me, given the plethora of tales out there with gothic love stories aplenty.

The Magician’s Lie is a delightful read that I devoured in less than a day. The graphic, descriptive writing flows like water and brings these memorable characters to life. I loved the idea behind the novel – a female illusionist in the early 1900’s, which was very, very rare. Greer Macallister is a talent to be reckoned with and I cannot wait to see what she brings to us next.

The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister: Available at a bookseller near you on January 13, 2015.

5 stars

Source: Sourcebooks Landmark {via NetGalley}

 

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Review: Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar

vanessa-and-her-sister“For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a captivating novel that offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of Vanessa Bell, her sister Virginia Woolf, and the controversial and popular circle of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group.

London, 1905: The city is alight with change, and the Stephen siblings are at the forefront. Vanessa, Virginia, Thoby, and Adrian are leaving behind their childhood home and taking a house in the leafy heart of avant-garde Bloomsbury. There they bring together a glittering circle of bright, outrageous artistic friends who will grow into legend and come to be known as the Bloomsbury Group. And at the center of this charmed circle are the devoted, gifted sisters: Vanessa, the painter, and Virginia, the writer.
Each member of the group will go on to earn fame and success, but so far Vanessa Bell has never sold a painting. Virginia Woolf’s book review has just been turned down by The Times. Lytton Strachey has not published anything. E. M. Forster has finished his first novel but does not like the title. Leonard Woolf is still a civil servant in Ceylon, and John Maynard Keynes is looking for a job. Together, this sparkling coterie of artists and intellectuals throw away convention and embrace the wild freedom of being young, single bohemians in London.
But the landscape shifts when Vanessa unexpectedly falls in love and her sister feels dangerously abandoned. Eerily possessive, charismatic, manipulative, and brilliant, Virginia has always lived in the shelter of Vanessa’s constant attention and encouragement. Without it, she careens toward self-destruction and madness. As tragedy and betrayal threaten to destroy the family, Vanessa must decide if it is finally time to protect her own happiness above all else.
The work of exciting young newcomer Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister exquisitely captures the champagne-heady days of prewar London and the extraordinary lives of sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.” – Publisher Summary

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar is a fictionalized version of the diary of Vanessa Stephen Bell, sister of Virginia Stephen Woolf. While Woolf was known for her writing, Vanessa was known more for being an artist. Both were members of the legendary Bloomsbury Group, which is represented marvelously in the novel. The tale is told via Vanessa’s diary as well as through telegraphed communications, mostly between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Wolf.

Most of us are aware of Virginia Woolf’s struggles with mental illness, and due to this I had expected a somewhat dark and heavy story. Surprisingly, I found that Vanessa, Virginia, and the rest of these Bloomsbury fellows provided much entertainment with their various personalities and quirks. Not to fear, however, there was plenty of focus on Virginia’s mental illness and Vanessa’s struggles in dealing with it. Both of the women’s parents, as well as their beloved elder brother Thoby, had passed and the brunt of the responsibility for the demanding Virginia was Vanessa’s alone.

While I did enjoy the story, particularly the character interaction, I still found the novel to be a bit… dry, I suppose. Certain scenes dragged on impossibly long, and there were far too many characters to keep track of for this aging woman’s mind. Vanessa and Her Sister is an obviously well-researched work that is worth taking the time to read if only for the chance to be a fly on the wall during the infamous salons of the Bloomsbury group. Go and get you some, y’all!

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel by Priya Parmar: Available at a bookseller near you on December 30, 2014!

3 stars

Source: Ballantine Books {via NetGalley}

 

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Review: The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse by Alan Bradley

the-curious-case-of-the-copper-corpse“Murder! the letter says, Come at once. Anson House, Greyminster, Staircase No. 3. How can Flavia de Luce resist such an urgent plea? After all, examining a dead body sounds like a perfectly splendid way to spend a Sunday. So Flavia hops upon her trusted bicycle, Gladys, whose rubber tires hiss happily along the rainy road, and arrives at her father’s mist-shrouded old school. There, a terrified boy leads her to the loo where, sitting in a bathtub, is what appears to be a statue. But, no: To Flavia’s surprise, the thing is in fact a naked dead man. Save his face, he seems to have been carved out of copper. Never one to shy away from the macabre, Flavia gets to work—only to find that when an investigation begins with a metallic cadaver, ever more curious twists are to be expected.” – Goodreads

As has become much the rage these days, the fabulous Alan Bradley had gifted his readers with a Flavia de Luce short story to whet our appetites just one month prior to the anxiously awaited publication of his most recent novel, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust.

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, girl detective Flavia de Luce is summoned at home by a local schoolboy. His housemaster has been found dead – the same man that he had threatened to kill just days before. He needs Flavia to prove him innocent before he can be accused of his housemaster’s death. As always, Flavia is up to the task.

Flavia is brought to the scene of death, where she finds the deceased, naked, in a bathtub – completely covered in copper plating. Thankfully Flavia’s history as a chemist extraordinaire will be of great value in this curious case. It’s not long before she meets the rest of the boys in the dormitory, does a little snooping around the school campus, and – as always – nabs her man.

Unfortunately, it is glaringly obvious, after reading The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse, that for Bradley this was merely a homework assignment to be completed – without much effort on his part. The magic that follows Flavia de Luce is not to be seen in this short story, nor is it much of a mystery. I realize, that in 27 short pages, things have to move quickly – but could we not have been given more than 27 short pages to allow this tale to be more fleshed-out? For it’s length, and $0.99 price, I suppose we are getting what we paid for, and I shouldn’t complain. For I know, without a doubt, that when I crack open the cover for As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, all feelings of dissatisfaction will fade away.

The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse by Alan Bradley. Read it today!

3 stars

Source: Personal Library

 

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Review: Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver

murder-at-the-brightwell“Amory Ames is a wealthy young woman who regrets her marriage to her notoriously charming playboy husband, Milo. Looking for a change, she accepts a request for help from her former fiancé, Gil Trent, not knowing that she’ll soon become embroiled in a murder investigation that will test not only her friendship with Gil, but will upset the status quo with her husband.
Amory accompanies Gil to the Brightwell Hotel in an attempt to circumvent the marriage of his sister, Emmeline, to Rupert Howe, a disreputable ladies’ man. Amory sees in the situation a grim reflection of her own floundering marriage. There is more than her happiness at stake, however, when Rupert is murdered and Gil is arrested for the crime. Amory is determined to prove his innocence and find the real killer, despite attempted dissuasion from the disapproving police inspector on the case. Matters are further complicated by Milo’s unexpected arrival, and the two form an uneasy alliance as Amory enlists his reluctant aid in clearing Gil’s name. As the stakes grow higher and the line between friend and foe becomes less clear, Amory must decide where her heart lies and catch the killer before she, too, becomes a victim.
Murder at the Brightwell is a delicious mystery in which murder invades polite society and romance springs in unexpected places. Weaver has penned a debut in the tradition of Jacqueline Winspear.” – Goodreads

Amory Ames is in the middle of a love/hate relationship with Milo, her husband of five years. After a whirlwind romance and marriage, Milo soon returned to his bachelor behavior – traveling to various exotic locales such as Monte Carlo, and is widely known as quite the playboy. Amory never knows when she will see him: when he’ll return home, or – god forbid – when he’ll be leaving again. When Amory receives a surprise visit from her former fiancé, Gil – the man she jilted to run away with Milo – and he requests a favor, she’s all ears. Gil wants her to accompany him to the Brightwell Hotel, near the seaside – but that’s not all. He wants her to to tell their fellow guests that she has left Milo and is there as Gil’s romantic interest. Gil quickly explains that he is trying to prevent his sister, Emmaline, from marrying her fast-talking playboy fiancé, Rupert Howe. His hope is that Emmaline will learn from Amory’s “mistake” and realize that marrying Rupert would be a grave error. Amory, who is thrilled to see Gil after all of this time – and who is angry and resentful toward Milo – happily offers her assistance, begins packing immediately, and the fun begins to flow.

When Amory and Gil arrive at the Brightwell to meet the rest of their party, Amory is not impressed – while thrilled to see her old friend Emmaline, she takes an immediate dislike to Rupert, as well as several other odd or unpleasant members of the party. The hotel, however, is gorgeous, and Amory is excited to be near the seaside – a welcome respite from the boredom and loneliness of the English countryside. The only downside to her stay at the Brightwell is the potential for scandal due to her association with Gil. To make things harder, Amory is faced with the task of sorting out her feelings for Gil, as well as for Milo. Is her marriage over? Is it time to call it quits and move on – possibly to Gil? Or does she still love Milo enough to stay with him and try to work things out? It’s a complicated matter, which becomes even more so when Milo arrives at the hotel to join the party. Amory’s decision-making is pushed to the side, however, when Rupert Howe turns up dead!

Gil is an immediate suspect – his distaste for Rupert is well-known, and there is incriminating evidence pointing in his direction. He is eventually arrested, to Amory’s shock and dismay. She vows to prove Gil innocent if it’s the last thing she does. Investigating Rupert’s death, however, exposes her to danger she didn’t expect – and when other members of her party start “dropping like flies” Amory realizes she may have bitten off a bit more than she can chew.

Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver is an absolutely delightful read. This is a light but interesting murder mystery with just enough playful banter added in to bring on a bit of a smile every few pages. I loved that the reader is kept guessing until the very end – I had made my guess much earlier in the novel, but doubted myself throughout, until I was rewarded in one of the final scenes with the true identity of the killer. The love triangle between Amory, Milo, and Gil was a very real one; the state of Amory and Milo’s relationship broke my heart – there were a couple of scenes between the two of them that had a few tears leaking out of my eye. I have to say I truly, truly enjoyed this reading experience and am so very hopeful that Ashley Weaver adapts this novel into a continuing series. She would have a faithful reader right here, and there is no doubt in my mind that she would find many, many more to spare.

Murder at the Brightwell by Ashley Weaver. Read it today!

5 stars

Source: Lincoln City Libraries

 

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Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

peony-in-love“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”
“For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.
Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.
So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.
Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.” – Goodreads

Fifteen-year-old Peony, born to a very wealthy family, has lived an extremely sheltered life, never even stepping foot outside of her ancestral home. She has now approached the age of marriage and has been betrothed to a man whom she has never met. Knowing it is her duty as a daughter and future wife, Peony is accepting of this arrangement – until the evening she meets a man for whom she feels true love.

Peony’s father has arranged a three-night performance of her favorite opera, “The Peony Pavillion.” While the women are separated from the men, Peony wanders off into the gardens during the performance and unknowingly runs into a handsome poet. The two forge an instant connection and make plans to meet each night of the opera. Her new love is all Peony can think about and she knows he is the one she is meant to marry.

In the weeks and months leading up to her wedding day, Peony becomes obsessed – sick and weak, knowing she is to be married to one who is not her true love. In a matter of days, much like the ill-fated lovers of her favorite opera, Peony’s life takes a shocking turn that readers will never expect as her life mirrors the story of “The Peony Pavillion” in an uncanny way.

There is so, so much more to this novel but to share more would unmask the hidden twists and turns that are hiding just beneath the surface of this gripping and unusual tale. Readers are given a true glimpse of 17th-century China and their ancient rituals and beliefs surrounding death, the afterlife, and the importance of ancestral heritage.

I have to say that Peony in Love by Lisa See was nothing like what I had anticipated. Things began as expected, of course, but then the explosive first plot twist hit me and I was simply floored. I was so anxious to see how See would continue the tale from that point forward, how she could possibly do so – but do so she did, and with stunningly talented writing, as well. Peony in Love is yet another winner from the amazing Lisa See – I, for one, cannot wait to see what she will bring to us next.

Peony in Love: A Novel by Lisa See. Read it today!

5 stars

Source: Lincoln City Libraries

 

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Review: Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim

yellow-crocus“Moments after Lisbeth is born, she’s taken from her mother and handed over to an enslaved wet nurse, Mattie, a young mother separated from her own infant son in order to care for her tiny charge. Thus begins an intense relationship that will shape both of their lives for decades to come. Though Lisbeth leads a life of privilege, she finds nothing but loneliness in the company of her overwhelmed mother and her distant, slave-owning father. As she grows older, Mattie becomes more like family to Lisbeth than her own kin and the girl’s visits to the slaves’ quarters—and their lively and loving community—bring them closer together than ever. But can two women in such disparate circumstances form a bond like theirs without consequence? This deeply moving tale of unlikely love traces the journey of these very different women as each searches for freedom and dignity.” – Publisher Summary 

In 1837, three-month-old Samuel is torn away from his mother’s breast as she is sent from the field-slave quarters to the Big House to serve as a wet nurse for the Master’s newborn daughter, Elizabeth. Mattie is devastated at leaving her beloved Samuel behind and resentful of the baby Elizabeth, but soon grows to love the innocent baby girl. Thus begins a lifelong love story between a woman born to slavery and a girl born to great wealth.

For the first half of this tale, we are given the story from Mattie’s side of things. We watch Mattie’s turmoil at leaving her infant son and family tempered by the love that blossoms within her for her young charge, whom she nicknames Lisbeth. Mattie’s life in the Big House passes smoothly over the years, until Lisbeth’s young brother is born and she is sent back to the fields.

As the years wear on the focus of the story begins to shift toward Lisbeth. Now an adolescent, she is learning about society and her place within it, without Mattie by her side for the first time. As she matures, Lisbeth is also faced with the task of how to justify the institution of slavery with the love she holds for Mattie and her family. In the end, Lisbeth learns that often the greatest social change comes from the most personal acts of love.

Yellow Crocus: A Novel by Laila Ibrahim is a novel about love, loss, and the nature of relationships when one person is there by choice and the other by force. The relationship between child and “Mammy” is a difficult one, to be sure. Ibrahim covers the institution of slavery well enough, not necessarily thoroughly, but not sugar-coating it, either. She did fit in some interesting historical facts about slavery and it’s beginnings in America, as well. Yellow Crocus was a quick, enjoyable read that will please many who are interested in this area of the Historical Fiction genre.

Yellow Crocus: A Novel by Laila Ibrahim. Read it today!

3.5 stars

Source: Lake Union Publishing {via NetGalley}

 

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Review: Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip

secret-of-a-thousand-beauties“Set against the vibrant and intrigue-laden backdrop of 1930s China, Mingmei Yip’s enthralling novel explores one woman’s defiant pursuit of independence.

Spring Swallow was promised in marriage while still in her mother’s belly. When the groom dies before a wedding can take place, seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow is ordered to become a ghost bride to appease his spirit. Under her in-laws’ protection, she will be little more than a servant, unable to know real love or bear children. Refusing to accept her fate as a “bad-luck woman,” Spring Swallow flees on her wedding day.

In the city of Soochow, Spring Swallow joins a community of renowned embroiderers. The women work for Aunty Peony, whose exquisite stitching once earned her the Emperor’s love. But when Aunty Peony agrees to replicate a famous painting–a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete–betrayal and jealousy emerges within the group. Spring Swallow becomes entangled in each woman’s story of heartbreak, even while she embarks on a dangerous affair with a young revolutionary. On a journey that leads from the remote hillsides around Soochow to cosmopolitan Peking, Spring Swallow draws on the secret techniques learned from Aunty Peony and her own indomitable strength, determined to forge a life that is truly her own.” – Publisher Summary

Seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow has been trapped in a vow made by her late mother to marry a man who died while still in his mother’s womb. In 1930’s China, this feudal tradition of ghost marriages is still very much a reality for unfortunate young women such as herself.

“‘The white bird symbolizes the purity of your and Wang Xing’s union. The red symbolizes the virginal blood on your marital bed’

Right now my virginal blood was boiling inside all my arteries. What I’d like to do now was slit that bird’s neck so he’d bleed to death and end my bloody nightmare.”

Unfortunately, Spring Swallow’s nightmare is only about to begin. Following the marriage ceremony, she cleverly escapes into the hills and makes her way into nearby Soochow where she is brought into the home of a group of women embroiderers. Aunty Peony is the women’s teacher, a master embroiderer, and a woman of many secrets. The lessons Spring Swallow learns from Aunty Peony teach her not only to become a skilled embroiderer but also about how to survive in life. Soon, however, secrets, jealousy, and betrayal break up the home Aunty Peony has built and Spring Swallow must forge ahead into the unforgiving world to try to make a life for herself.

While Spring Swallow begins her journey an innocent, she quickly matures as she meets with the deceit, betrayals, loss, and abandonment that come across her path. Yet something is alight within her that keeps her fighting to survive, to make a better life for herself and her young charge. Spring Swallow learns well that happiness is fleeting and that often sacrifices must be made to allow us a better fate.

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip is a bittersweet tale chronicling Spring Swallow’s journey from an abused village girl to an independent woman. Along the way she will fall in love, gain and lose three husbands, and finally find a place she can call home. The writing here was somewhat simplistic and character development could have been more thorough. I felt there were some holes in the plot that left me with unanswered questions – of course, I can’t tell you what those are without some major spoilers. Sorry, y’all. In all, Secret of a Thousand Beauties is an easy read that allows a gentle introduction into the atmosphere of 1930’s China. If you’re looking for something light to read while hanging out with the family this Thanksgiving weekend, this may be your book.

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip. Read it today!

2.5 stars

Source: Kensington Books {via NetGalley}

 

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